House approves $715 billion highway and water infrastructure bill

Washington — The U.S. House voted 221 to 201 Thursday to pass a federal infrastructure bill with over $210 million in earmarked funding for Michigan highway and transit projects and $4 billion to boost adoption of electric vehicles.

The bill faced fierce opposition from Republicans, who criticized the package as a partisan grab bag that strayed too far from traditional infrastructure. 

The Democratic-led package is not expected to become law, but House leaders said they intend to use it to negotiate with the Senate, which has a framework for a $1.2 trillionbipartisan infrastructure deal but no legislative text. 

A seven-mile stretch of Interstate 275 was shut down at midnight Monday from 5 Mile to I-96/696/M-5 interchange as part of an $75 million project.

"I believe we could work out the spending levels in the bill, but there is no policy attached to their proposal. You have to have policy to do a bill," House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio of Oregon said. 

"I would suggest that you look at our policies, and we adopt significant portions of those," in addition to some of the measures that Senate panels have produced.

The $715 billion highway and water infrastructure bill would increase investment in roads and bridges by more than 54%, according to a House Transportation and Infrastructure committee summary of the legislation. It estimated the total funding for roads, bridges and safety measures to clock in around $343 billion.

However, most of the funding for roads and bridges is aimed at improving existing roadways rather than building new ones — a policy that Democrats praised as reflective of growing climate change needs and that Republicans condemned as a limitation on state decision-making.

It includes $109 billion for public transit improvements, $95 billion for rail projects, $117 billion for drinking water infrastructure, and $51 billion for wastewater projects.

It would set a deadline for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set limits for perfluorinated chemicals in drinking water known as PFAS and authorizes $200 million annually for public water treatment systems.

Six years after the Flint water crisis, the package also devotes $45 billion to replace lead service lines around the country. That number "respects the forecasts made by the professionals" that removing all lead pipes in around 400,000 schools and childcare centers would cost around $45 billion, said U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-New York, who chairs theEnergy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change.

“People know, in my community, in terms that are very stark, what happens when we fail to invest in infrastructure," said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township. "What happened in Flint is a tragedy, but it’s only a warning to the rest of the country that if we don’t invest we’re going to see more and more situations like what my hometown has been dealing with for four or five years.”

Another section of the bill would institute a five-year drinking water shutoff moratorium, wipe out accumulated debt for low-income water customers and create permanent payment assistance programs — elements pushed for by Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Debbie Dingell of Dearborn.

The package authorizes $1 billion annually for the next four years for electric vehicle charging and hydrogen fueling infrastructure; and establishes a task force to study the electric vehicle battery supply chain. It also includes provisions proposed by Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, that requires the Department of Transportation to report on state-level progress toward a national EV charging network. 

In underscoring the importance of the EV elements, DeFazio said the rest of the world is going electric, but "we're stuck in the past."

"We can either let China capture another market from us — the future of transportation in EVs and autonomous vehicles — or we can compete," he said. "In fact, we can lead again like we did in the '60s and the '70s, when our infrastructure was the envy of the world." 

A provision shaped by Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield and Dingell would direct research and development on vehicle sensor data solutions to combat wrong-way driving. Another section pushed by Dingell would direct regulators to create a rule requiring drunk driving prevention technology be built into cars that stops or limits the car from working if the driver is deemed impaired.

The legislation was inspired by the 2019 deaths of Michigan's Abbas family, who were killed on an interstate in Kentucky by a drunk driver heading the wrong way. 

The bill includes more than $210 million in earmarked funding for projects in 12 of Michigan’s 14 congressional districts. It’s the first time since 2005 that earmarks are included in the highway funding bill, which is reauthorized every five years and expires at the end of September, according to the Eno Center for Transportation.

The House passage Thursday included approval of 47 local transportation projects worth $128.9 million requested by Michigan Democrats and 27 projects worth $81.6 million requested by Michigan Republicans.

But the legislation is not likely to remain in its current form, as the bill lacks broad bipartisan support. Still, Michigan's Democratic lawmakers expressed optimism Wednesday that the spending they fought for will remain in the bill.

“There are Republican and Democratic senators that need to see many things in this happen," Dingell said. "So, I do believe that we will see a Surface Transportation Reauthorization by the end of this year, and I’m very confident that many of the projects that we’re all pushing for will be in it.”

When members on both sides of the aisle add requests for projects in their states, Levin said, "that tends to build some good will and momentum."

But every House Republican but two voted Thursday against the infrastructure package, including dozens of GOP members who secured earmarked funding.

Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Holland Republican, was one of two GOP members from Michigan who didn't request any highway or bridge funding for his district, saying he thought the process was "rushed," and the earmark system still broken. 

He's dubious that the designated funds that lawmakers requested will end up making it into whatever final package goes to the president's desk. However, the earmarks could get added to the Senate version during talks. 

"I'm worried there's a lot of stuff ending on the cutting room floor that is going to leave a lot of people disappointed," Huizenga said.